Understanding how we’re perceived by others is a powerful tool. It allows us to become better communicators and better teammates. And in the workplace, this kind of insight can propel your career.
The problem is, most of us are fairly unaware of the strengths and weaknesses we project. And sometimes, we confuse the two entirely. For example, someone might consider their sense of humor a strength, without realizing that they sometimes use that humor at inappropriate times. Or someone might consider their straightforwardness a strength, without realizing that they are sometimes seen as too blunt in sensitive situations. I’m sure you can imagine how these qualities might hold someone back from that next promotion.
The good news is, we can all improve the level of awareness we have about our professional personas with a simple exercise. All it takes is a few questions, a willingness to listen, and a little bravery.
We first heard about this exercise from Kristi Hedges, a senior leadership coach who specializes in executive communications and the author of The Power of Presence: Unlock Your Potential to Influence and Engage Others. She calls it a ‘presence audit.’
According to Hedges, many of us suffer from what psychologists call the ‘transparency illusion’ — the false belief that others correctly perceive our intentions. Unfortunately, we incorrectly project our intentions all the time. Just think of the thousands of facial expressions and body movements we make every day; it’s impossible to account for all the different ways people might interpret those.
Next time you’re walking around your office, observe all the facial expressions and postures people make when they aren’t thinking about who’s watching them. The faces you make when your deep in thought or distracted by an email or simply figuring out where you’re going to go to lunch today can easily get misinterpreted. And emotions are all the more confusing to decipher. Just think of how similar the appearance of boredom and frustration are.
Despite the high risk of misinterpretation, most of us walk around feeling confident in the assumptions we make about others. And in organizations, these feelings get crowdsourced. People share with one another their thoughts and opinions on their coworkers working style, work ethic, attitude, skills, and more. Common narratives start to emerge around the office and before you know it, everyone starts forming a reputation for something.
While this hive mentality might sound scary, it’s actually your most valuable source for information about how you’re being perceived.
Hedges ‘presence audit’ won’t take a lot of time, but you will need to enter into it with the right mindset. No one enjoys hearing that they’ve been misinterpreted or viewed in a poor light by others. Do yourself a favor: prepare yourself beforehand. Get comfortable with the idea that this might be uncomfortable. Don’t allow yourself to get defensive, no matter how upsetting the information may be. And resist the urge to defend or explain yourself; just listen. Afterward, take a break. Let the information soak in, and take the time to properly reflect on everything before you decide what actions to take.
Here’s the exercise:
Select five people. Who you choose is important. Think of colleagues who have worked with you often, hopefully in a variety of work situations. Try to get a mix of perspectives: bosses, peers, direct reports, etc. Anyone instrumental to your company culture is a great person to add to your list. Just be sure you pick people who are willing and able to be honest.
Set up face-to-face meetings with each. Be clear than anything they say is confidential, and that you’re meeting with others in order to search for common trends — that will relieve some burden of guilt on any one individual delivering harsh feedback.
Ask two questions. That’s right, it’s only two:
- What’s the general perception of me?
- What could I do differently that would have the greatest impact on my success?
Hopefully, your team of presence auditors will provide you with feedback that’s eye-opening and helpful. However, if they seem to provide answers that are too job- or project-specific, ask them to clarify:
- I appreciate that feedback. May I go up a level now and ask about the general perception of me as a leader/colleague/person?
You can, of course, ask for details or examples if you need them. But no matter what, end with a calm and sincere thank you.
Once you’re done, start looking for any advice or observations that were repeated. These are your most valuable insights. Outliers may also be valuable but are probably less impactful to focus on.
If you find that you’re coming across 100% as you intended, great! If you’re not (and you probably aren’t — at least not 100%), start making a plan. Pick a few behaviors you want to change and start being more aware of them when they happen.
While an exercise like this might seem scary, Hedges swears that most of her clients come back to her after this exercise and say, “Why didn’t anyone tell me this before? I can easily change that!”
With a little work, we can all improve about we’re perceived to reflect the kind of person and colleague we want to be.